Theme's Unique Importance to Computer-Mediated Storytelling

Katherine Phelps

Thematic Origins

People all carry certain beliefs and issues of concern. Some of these beliefs and issues may be overt, and others can be so much a part of the fabric of who people are, that they are unable to distinguish them from their experience. Creating from these beliefs and issues helps people to express their concerns, offer solutions or give support to how they feel things should be. It may even help people to become aware of certain unexplored thoughts and feelings.

Theme is the meaning, the quantified beliefs and issues, that is drawn out or expressed through a system of story events. Story creators may not always consciously begin with a theme, they may have to discover it. Nevertheless, it is at work and, if not immediately apparent, soon becomes so through the selective processes in developing a story. As John Gardner states, creators. . .

Dig out the fundamental meaning of events by organizing the imitation of reality around some primary question or theme suggested by the character's concern. . .

Theme, it should be noticed, is not imposed on the story but evoked from within it—initially intuitive but finally an intellectual act on the part of the writer(s). The writer(s) muse on the story idea to determine what it is in it that has attracted (them), why it seems to (them) worth telling. Having determined that what interests (them), and what chiefly concerns the major character. . (they) toy with various ways of telling (their) story, think about what has been said before. . . , brood on every image that occurs to (them), turning it over and over, puzzling on it, hunting for connections, trying to figure out—before (they) write, while they write, and in the process of repeated revisions—what it is that (they) really think. . . Only when (they) think out this story in this way do (they) achieve not just an alternative reality or, loosely, an imitation of nature, but true, firm art—fiction as serious thought.
[Gar84, pp. 176-178]

All stories have a core theme, even if that theme is the randomness of life. Core themes in a longer work may be built upon a collection of inter-related themes. Theme directs the selection of story elements, such as plot, characters, events and descriptions, and thereby focuses life. If the theme is presented with honesty, openness and sufficient thoroughness, the story is likely to be a well-rounded one where plot and character enhance one another as a unit, and the outcome tends to feel true, at least to our inner selves. Creators seeking a genuine understanding of their theme will tend to keep the elements of storytelling more in balance with one another.


The central or dominating idea in a literary work. In nonfiction prose it may be thought of as the general topic of discussion, the subject of the discourse, the thesis. In poetry, fiction, and drama it is the abstract concept which is made concrete through its representation in person, action, and image in the work.

Hugh C. Holman
[Hol80, p. 443]

The primary statement, suggestion, or implication of a literary work. It describes that portion of a work which comments on the human condition. The term is used here interchangeably with central concern. It does not have the moral implications of message nor the didactic element of thesis. A thesis states or clearly implies a particular conviction or recommends a specific course of action. Theses are often propagandistic. Most sophisticated writing is unified by a theme rather than a thesis.

Stephen Minot
[Min93, p. 379]

A focus of concern or interest that dictates the selection of which characters, events, states and aesthetic devices are used in a story in order to explore their inter-relationships under this focus and come to some sort of conclusion.

The first processes where theme exerts its influence and may be revealed are the setting of premise and the selection of genre and medium.